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Grammys 2012 Review: Whitney Houston's Death Creates Missed Opportunity

Adele and Jennifer Hudson make it great, but nobody opts to address the elephant in the room.

Best Pop Solo Performance
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With the specter of Whitney Houston’s death weighing heavily on the Grammys, it could have been a night of faux somber appreciation – and that is never more transparent than at an awards show – but the Grammys decided to stick to the formula that’s been working well for years now: Lots of live performances, interrupted ever so briefly by the odd announcement of a winner. It’s almost like the Grammys would prefer to tweet out the winners and just let everybody jam in the meantime.

It’s actually not a bad strategy. Unless Nicki Minaj is involved.

But what the show got right was the balance. It kicked off with a ferocious live performance from Bruce Springsteen, found a nice groove with Bruno Mars nailing the entertainment end of it and then paired Alicia Keys and Bonnie Raitt in a nice tribute to Etta James (and Whitney).

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Even with Houston’s death at the doorstep of music’s biggest night of thanking itself – awkward – nothing could derail the feel-good vibe of Adele winning everything she was nominated for and getting a truly heartfelt standing ovation (those are rare, if you’re looking closely) from an appreciative peer group happy that she made it out of her throat surgery intact and brilliant as ever. Then the night peaked with a peerless appreciation from Jennifer Hudson to Houston.

On the downside was Minaj’s legendarily bad and laughably funny performance as she tried to play bad girl. No exorcism is going to let people forget that.

Also unfortunate was the inclusion of violence-toward-women poster boy Chris Brown, flopping on the same stage where Rihanna performed. It was like the Grammys inadvertently forgot that the message was going to be, “Oh, here’s Rihanna and here’s the guy who beat the crap out of her on the way to the Grammys a few years ago.”

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Exceptionally bad idea. What the Grammys should have said was, in essence, screw Chris Brown. Lots of people up for awards don’t get to perform on stage. Not inviting him would have been easy.

Again, you can take the Grammys for what they are – an awards ceremony that has for decades ignored deserving artists, which would be a boring and pedantic rant – or just go with the fact that, at its best, the Grammys is a night when colliding musical forces can sometimes come together to make magic. And if, in that latter incarnation, the effort misses, it was still fun to watch. If the Grammys just gave out trophies, it would be just like all the other mostly boring awards shows. You have to give them credit for tossing out most of the formula and just letting people perform (although it always seem odd when they say someone’s won three awards and you’ve seen them once).

Two elements that stand out, above and beyond the exclusion of James and Don Cornelius from the In Memoriam segment and Minaj’s ungodly bad performance, shouldn’t be glossed over. First, it would have been nice if someone said, in clear reference to Whitney Houston, that if you’re given a gift you shouldn’t toss it in the trash. Nobody had to say, “Hey, don’t do drugs – they’re bad.” But nobody wanted to state the obvious – that Whitney, no matter how she died – was a cautionary tale. Everyone who clapped so ferociously as Adele took the stage – their enthusiasm and sense of relief coming from the fact that throat surgery very easily could have claimed an exceptional talent at a very young age – should have seen the connection to Whitney’s voice gone ragged from abuse and then silenced forever at age 48. So, why not at least one person – and Dave Grohl from the Foo Fighters might have been perfect – stepping up to say something to the effect of, “Hey, this night proves we’re all blessed somehow. Don’t screw it up. The love you save may be your own.”

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(Maybe someone did broach this subject and it was, like so many of the awards, not featured on the telecast.)

But that sentiment would have dovetailed nicely with the second slight: Amy Winehouse. Yep, tragic and sad, with a similarity to Whitney in the inevitable decline. But come on, no other appreciation than a mention in the who died list? Hers was a talent that deserved better. And hell, you could have cut Paul McCartney’s first song (it will be hard to unhear that) in favor of Adele singing something from the Winehouse catalog. Now that would have been great – and forward thinking. But no.

In the end, however, it’s hard to get too worked up about the highs and lows everywhere else. The Beach Boys reunion was just sad on the one hand – and Maroon 5 was just so completely wrong in support (so was Foster the People, but at least on their own they could have cranked out some kind of authentic tribute, rather than a stale effort that tried to be note-perfect with Maroon 5 and the aging Boys). That Tony Bennett and Carrie Underwood duet didn’t work at all. Bon Iver is a new artist? So, what, you get to red shirt the first few years? See – you could do this nit-picky thing every year. And why bother - it's just the Grammys.

Better to focus on what went right – Adele and more Adele. Jennifer Hudson. And maybe your favorite rap or country artist got some hardware.

But since there’s no getting around the fact that Whitney Houston’s death loomed over this party, it might have been cause for applause to hear even one artist use that death as a cautionary tale to every future music superstar recording American Idol, The Voice or The X Factor and dreaming of their own chance.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com